by Elias Tezapsidis
The day that I returned to Greece after a decade in the US marked a grand failure, at least in my head. If I had written this three years ago, in the timeline that coincided with being back, it would have been utterly impossible for me to honestly assert that this failure was in my head. Yet the last two years of my American life were actually the absolute failure and the Odyssey of a return, where multiple people who cared more about myself than I did, were a triumph, just not on my terms and not in the way that I had dreamed my life would unfold.
While I do not consider myself fully responsible for my misery, I am acutely aware of my accountability when it comes to how Shitty Circumstances became a canon: through drug use. But that’s another week, and this is a different saga. Here, I want to garner the strength of affection that I felt outside of my immediate family and beyond my New York and college friends.
The day after I returned I met a random dude who flirted with me on SCRUFF. I was still using SCRUFF to talk to J, because the last few weeks in New York my phone was stolen and I had not yet gotten a new one, which meant I only used the services available to someone through a wireless connection on a phone. I was still full of myself, not yet humbled nor grounded, and perhaps that was easier for me, but ultimately the true strength comes when you see yourself not just as a caricature of confidence but when you have peripheral vision of you as a being. I sincerely do not remember his name, but he was in his 30s, which still in my few years of youth below him made me feel gross through our dialogue.
My question: “Do you live by yourself?”
“No, I live with my parents.”
I was grossed out, hypocritically; I had just moved back in my parents’ house. But whatever, I had spent a decade away from home, failing to realize that it was also my parents who helped me make that happen, to a degree, despite or because of my stubbornness.
“Okay, well, we could meet at 2Concept Store. There is a photography exhibit and I want to see one of my friend’s work there. I can also suck your dick in the bathroom.”
I knew, in my head, that I would not allow for that. Not just because I was really into J and my desire for fidelity was new, but also because I am not the kind of person who gets turned on by that. I went anyway. This mini-risk was immediately one I was excited I took. Chance often helps us when we help it even a little bit, it seems, or it did in this moment.
I liked 2Concept Store. It was in the heart of the city and had two levels. On the first level there was a large bar and coffee shop. But the unique quality of it, which is hardly groundbreaking, but was greatly strengthened by the owners’ taste level and eclecticness was that it also functioned as a store of retro furniture and objects, generally. There was a mezzanine level where a bunch of beautiful objects were placed for visitors to go through. And below, was where I was to meet the ambitious cock-sucker: where his friend’s exhibition—or more accurately the photography exhibit to which his friend partook—was.
His friend’s name I do recall, well, because he is now my friend and this origin story fades in my mind in the context of what I gained: a friend, O. Immediately upon meeting him I felt comfortable to be myself, share what I wanted. Equally importantly, I cared to know what he thought. O was very intelligent and had knowing eyes. He had a septum piercing, wore glasses, was tall and lanky with a thin man’s crouch and had hair that reminded me of a pineapple, fluffy and curly.
“Can you guess which photo is by me?”
I skimmed through the possibilities on the floor. I thought I knew when I saw a hot gay guy, or what seemed like that, in a nice setting, but it was definitely a Ryan McGinley-esque frame.
“Is it this one?” I said pointing. I had my hands full, I had just gotten my new laptop and I had that with me in this moment, which must have looked ridiculous. I wonder why the Mac packaging is so rococo and anti-minimalist, when the entire product is about minimalist design and excellence without show-offishness.
I had guessed correctly which photo was taken by him.
“How did you know?”
I don’t know. Intuition, mostly, but also the idea of what I expected might appeal to him. I was still recent from thinking I know things better, still everything seemed like it was trying to be what I thought was cool. Over time and through conversations, he showed me that things were not trying to be what I thought was cool; often things were unaware of what I think is cool and are cool by themselves, in a vacuum or in a different context. This is a useful lesson, when done respectfully and without the intention of criticizing people for being self-possessed.
For the next couple of years, he became a constant in my life, not because we spent hours with each other very frequently but because our interactions were rich. I would often get questions like “How was your life in New York?” or “Can you tell me about your daily life there? Your routine?” and in the beginning, when I still lived there in my head despite being in Greece to put myself together again, it was a challenge. But what I understood was that this was not done by him in a way that felt reductive or orientalizing: I was not a foreign body experiencing extremes to him, but his friend, and through friends we learn stuff.
A vital part of being a good friend is setting up a transparent path for the friendship to function. By this I do not mean that all friendships are always mutual. I am not naive in that respect, and much like love, I consider friendship to be a greatly unequal field: very often someone will like the other person more and will be more doting and generous. What I mean, then, by setting up a transparent path for the friendship to function is that both parties gain something to continue moving forward, even if that something is a mirror to themselves or a mirror to past selves. Like a dense journal of a sad person, a friend listens in a crisis, but unlike a journal it offers views one cannot see when s/he is by herself/himself.
O took me to a lot of the bars and coffee-shops where actually cool and not just wealthy people hung out. He was from Larissa, which is a city, but smaller than Thessaloniki, and frankly a bit rural in my head, but again, I can often be wrong. He has multiple siblings, and they are hot bartenders in trendy places or tattoo artists. He is close to his family, but in his own terms: he shares what he wants but in the way he choose, and this was another lesson from him.
In the time since I have met him, O held a couple of posts for monetary reasons. My favorite job he had was work for the Thessaloniki Film Festival, which meant that I got to see him when I would see foreign films that were being shown in the port. He would often be at the ticket box. Slowly, he grew tired of that, then he met a boyfriend—who I met but only pretended to like because O did—and a series of events had him moving to Athens very fast.
The specifics of the move were intriguing: they marked a new professional start in an area that was nearer his ambitions for the future and it happened with the exact same friends he had lived with in Thessaloniki while we were friends. I will start with the latter, because to me it is fascinating that three gays lived with such success and lack of mess for so long.
O has two roommates, and he had just H when we met. H worked as a server at Pasta Flora, which was a banger hang when I was a teenager. The ambiance was remarkable: all ‘60s and ‘70s camp and kitsch (actually, really, not popular imagination version of both), hand-selected by the owner, who often frequented the bar himself, pug in arm. Briefly, Pasta Flora closed and H was able to sign up for unemployment benefits, which meant he had the time and leisure to explore his artistic aspirations in the Athenian landscape.
The other roommate is M, who I thought was rude, because he was a coffee-server at 2Concept when I first encountered him. I don’t know how he met O and H, but the dynamic of all of them first living together in a tiny apartment in Antigonidon Street in Thessaloniki, then moving as a group in Athens, is adorable to me.
But why am I describing who O’s roommates are? Because I went to see him, after my Berlin adventure and recent decision to go on with grad school. I think that enjoying life is about refusing to be defined by adulthood, declaring an eternal state of playfulness and being a child while being a grown-up. Playfulness is key to enjoying dailiness, and that is how I found myself counting with my fingers the number of new friends I had made since I had returned to Greece, and my thumb stood out in distance to my body when I thought of O.
A new routine I had added to my life in the recent past was adding the reading of the Greek Newspaper Kathimerini to my Sunday routine. After a decade of reading the New York Times with my Sunday coffee—and I normally do not mean a cup or mug, but a thoroughly large french press—the need within me to understand the environment directly surrounding me arose with new fervor. It was in the pages of this newspaper that I saw an ad for the exhibit Picasso & Antiquity: Line and Clay hosted in a museum I had loved visiting the year before, the Museum of Cycladic Art. Cycladic refers to the region of Cyclades in Greece, a group of islands that is in the Aegean pelagos including Naxos, the fated-to-be-hated Mykonos and others. But there, on a Sunday sometime in July, it was that I decided I would be heading to see O before leaving again in September, in Athens, and with the excuse to see this exhibit! Together. I would be sleeping in H’s room, and I was to stay just a few days. If he weren’t able to host me, I would have Airbnb-ed; it was important for me to see him, because I value consistency in friends and I enjoy demonstrating that through physical presence.
My trip began early, as most trips do, and it was in my heeding O’s advice that I was at the train station around 5am, to leave Thessaloniki and arrive to Athens in 4 hours. I had booked my tickets the day before, and I was surprised in finding out I had to pay 15 euros more than what my friend had told me, but I purchased them nonetheless, not realizing I had just given myself and this trip a little pick-me-up unintentionally. The conductor was leading people to the appropriate wagon. I showed him mine.
“Oh no, you are in First Class. You didn’t realize?”
That was why my ticket was more expensive. The online purchasing process assumes you want to travel in First Class unless you scroll down, aware of its preference. Instead of being annoyed at my stupidity which cost so little, I derive joy and satisfaction in the frozen stall in which I had the liberty of dictating the temperature in, the seat of mine featuring a light blue pouch packed with Noxzema deodorant, moisturizer and another body lotion I would never use. Sometimes, the silliest of luxuries make you smile, and I smiled. There was another person in the stall with me, and he seemed and looked like my dad—he was definitely someone’s dad— but was friendlier, offering to buy me coffee and bring me snacks, which I politely refused opting out for some sleep en route to what I presumed would be a fun few days demanding a high energy reserve. Halfway through our trip, another lady was added to the mix, and the three of us got along very well; they both had children around my age, though younger, and I was in a time in my life where I can be polite to strangers without that bugging me. I have to admit I was also pleasantly surprised by how open-minded both of them seemed in regard to the growing up of their children, and while we maintained a civil conversation respecting boundaries, I wondered if everyone’s parents were great in the context of…other children.
Four pleasant hours later, I arrived in Athens. I would meet with O in the afternoon. As it was soon nearing 3.30pm, this meant that O would soon be done with work at a Gallery in Kolonaki, which also meant that I would pick him up and we could head to his apartment. Kolonaki has been the butt of jokes for a few decades, it is the expensive area of Athens, so a privilege bubble surrounds it. I think it’s funny that the word also translated to “small cone,” like those found in the side of the street to mark where you cannot park.
The gallery looked cool. It reminded me of a Soho layout, but maybe that is my sole point of reference. Maybe if I had seen more galleries not in Soho, I should feel free to opine, but I guess everything is closest to the untrained eye to the thing from which it brings out memories. He introduced me to his boss, who was my sister’s age and a total gallerina, but visibly nice too. I had a cigarette while he wrapped up work, which I totally did not understand (his tasks), but it looked like he was experimenting with various ways of presenting art by choosing different frames. I heard his boss complimenting him for finding a way to use a program online without paying for it, and I thought “wow, how universal this skillset is.”
Our plan for the day was to catch up properly and head to Picasso & Antiquity exhibit together. We began with coffee, as most Greeks do.
“So, how is everything going?” was still the way the conversation began.
I liked that I was comfortable enough to push him to start, but also that I felt that my update did not need to abide to DOING GREAT: I’M HEADING TO GRAD SCHOOL, I AM A NORMAL SUCCESS WITH A PATH, ACADEMIC OR SOMETHING which was my Niki mantra. Here I could talk about the work I was doing emotionally to be well. To expand on the things that bothered me.
O had met his first serious boyfriend probably a year after I met him. He lived and stayed in Thessaloniki, so since he moved to Athens, one would hope he would make a significant effort to maintain their partnership. Alas, he did not and O was frustrated but he was also not looking for something else. It seemed to me, and O agreed, that they were about to break up, but perhaps because this was a variation of a first love, they both lacked the vernacular go ahead with it. In most other respects, O was doing objectively well. He had a bunch of friends, old and new, and in addition to the lowkey schedule of the Gallery, he also was responsible for the tidying up, cleaning and communication with a really dope looking Airbnb property 10 minutes away from his apartment. I did not know this at the time, because we had not yet gone to his apartment, but he lived a block away from Areios Pagos, which is the Greek equivalent to the Supreme Court of Justice. I liked the area a lot, but like many areas extremely close to a major avenue (Leoforos Alexandras) it suffered from a lack of a neighborhood feel.
After we had gone through an honest, brief but cordial version of how everything was going, we looked at the time and contemplated how to navigate O’s schedule: would we go to the Museum of Cycladic Art for the exhibit today or leave it for later? I suggested today, and less than a mere 10 minutes after we walked in the two rooms dedicated to Picasso and Antiquity. In my head, I had renamed the theme to be “Picasso IN Antiquity,” making for a sense of timetravel that the real chronology of events occurring in the realm of history plausible. The curators, however, were more fact-based.
I had asked P about the exhibit before getting to it. I had texted:
“hiii! i really want to see you. also, the picasso exhibit at cycladic art.”
“it is good. i went. TINY”
Thus, my expectations were measured, though the week before I also heard on the news that it was the most successful, in terms of ticket purchases, exhibit in the recent history of Hellenic museum going. This new piece of information made me wonder if I was basic, but also furthered my curiosity on two things:
1/ reconsider how I felt about Picasso, but had I had any feelings about him thus far, with quotes such as: “good artists copy, great artists steal?”
2/ what does it mean to be popular? Does it indicate anything about high quality, or just the household-name basis of the thematic interpretation or artist involved?
“You are allowed, in the Picasso exhibit, to only take photos of the Picasso artifacts, not the Antiquity ones!” the museum conductor or security guard warned us.
I thought a bit about how millennials experience art and a visit to the museum: only as a performance of cultural curiosity that fits in their narratives of a self-intrigued by larger things that speak to them. I thought about how people were at concerts living moments through their phones, rather than immersed in being indulgent in being present.
I took my phone out of my pocket and I photographed what I wanted, giving myself both a quota (“I will not take more than 10 photos” I ordered myself) and the freedom to not hate myself for having become similar to what I am bound to generationally be.
What I saw was fun, simple, colorful, playful. But in the context of the parallel the exhibit brought about, what I also saw was that mimesis was highly prevalent in the production process of Picasso’s work. Obviously, the point was to draw out the similarities between archaic artwork and the modern looking absurdities that derived from them as a starting point. Yet, the clarity of the juxtaposition made me realize that when Picasso joked about great artists stealing, he was not totally joking.
Outside of this line of thought, of course, I caught myself guilty in two other respects. First, I was MORE interested in the past because of this tension, the parallel of the two universes emphasizing the significance of the world in antiquity. Second, I just liked the work. It was playful and bold and colorful, but it was also simple, clear and accessible.
I do think that a well-informed viewer can find art everywhere, even in garbage art, but to bring out heavy themes, notions of mythopoeia that is central to fiction today and make it digestible requires skill. So, a good prolific artist (or writer) is a person who reappropriates their curiosity into something meaningful and accessible. Of course, this is not an exclusionary definition: you can be a writer who is good and prolific whose work touches less people, but the way in which it touched them means more than the constant influx of similar thoughts and approaches. Yet, the desire to be understood—or in the self-helpy vernacular of our days: “be seen”—is important.
As I began walking with O in the two rooms dedicated to the exhibit I thought to myself that he would soon fall under one of two categories of people: the ones who experience museums as independent entities OR the ones who follow you closely as you try to digest each segment and artifact yourself, not always allowing you adequate space to form your own thoughts and opinions about how you felt and why you felt it. Knowing O, it was more likely that he would belong to the second one, and indeed that became the case.
“Wow! It really is clear that so much of the work that they have collected here is directly a product of his affection towards Greek Antiquity. Do you think it was conscious?”
I found this to be an arduous question to answer, so rather than pretend that I knew the answer I questioned if it could be plausible that somebody so directly derives their work from the past subconsciously, with the intention in their approach being less clear to them than a simulacrum of reproduction. Of course, this was in no way discussed or brought up in the brochures of the exhibit. Must be an impossible question to answer after the artist himself is dead and there is no way to have a dialectic conversation on his inspiration, sources and even intention.
I found myself to be glad I had not watched the movie or series in which Antonio Banderas portrayed Picasso, but I also knew that had I watched it I might have had a negative response to him, and I actually did not want that: I am at a point in my life where I enjoy consuming media, art, writing without overtly criticizing everything to the point of making everything devoid of joy.
P was right. The exhibit was very brief. But the didactic aspects of it were plenty and extended beyond what was displayed: steal, but make new. Copy, but without a trace. These, of course, were the bandit lessons for creatives. To a viewer who has a nine-to-five, this was one more museum visit they could put on their social media, becoming a metric for what makes something successful. But it was objectively good, the parallels were strong, and hence ultimately I did not mind that it was such a grand success that attracted so many viewers and received advertising buzz both in the Greek newspaper I read on Sundays, Kathimerini, nor the factoid about its visitorship triumph.
“I often wonder why all the mythological figures have such small dicks.”
O stated this, and it was kind of true, but not totally and I knew the answer because I had previously thought about it. The reason that kind figures are given baby dicks, or childish dicks, in art, is that they are considered “finer” in the sense of gentleness. So where he was wrong was that ALL figures in the artistic mythology featured small cocks: in actuality Satyrs, “evil figures” and monsters, including the Minotaur that Picasso so adored and felt defined by had gigantic cocks, mostly. I explained this.
We walked together to his apartment, and I was really happy for him. It was really large and cozy and comfortable and there was beautiful art surrounding it and I knew that he was happy or was in the process of getting there, because his base was a home and with a home to feel as home, one can only move forward.
I spent some time talking to his roommate, M, who played videogames and played songs by Lana Del Rey I did not know, and I was proud of myself for being unaware of both. Since the last time I had seen M he had added a variety of tattoos, cute silly and colorful throughout his left arm. They included emojis, the mushroom character from Super Mario Bros and other Japanese looking symbols. Thankfully they were done nicely and with artistry, and so I made a Marc Jacobs joke.
“Who is SHE?” M joked.
He would then play YouTube videos of drag queens and I would stay silent, because he seemed nicer, calmer, sweeter than my memory of him. Also, I was a guest in his home, and I value being polite in such circumstances.
O left to tidy up the Airbnb, and I would meet him in a few hours, he had to iron sheets and vacuum and also make everything look perfect. I was happy that he had figured out a life balance, even if it meant two gigs, because he liked at least one of them.
This essay is part five of a series of personal essays. Read part one, two, three and four.
About the Author:
Elias Tezapsidis is a generalist writer (currently) in Berlin. His work can be found in 3:AM Magazine, The Awl, Berfrois, BOMB, Harper’s, HTMLGiant, Salt Artists, Thought Catalog, The Millions, Publishers Weekly, The Toast, Vol1 Brooklyn, V Magazine and others.